the observatory

Skeptical of Science

Among other new roles, journalists becoming more critical of research
September 28, 2011

The recent coverage of the subatomic particles found to have travelled faster than the speed of light—tentative evidence that could mean a revision of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and a rewriting of the basic laws of physics—highlighted an emerging form of science reporting: the science journalist as science critic.

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times, for example, analyzed the findings against the context of a recent history of physics and astronomy that is “strewn with reports of suspicious data bumps [that] disappear with more data or critical scrutiny”. Brian Vastag in The Washington Post framed his report around the long process of scientific revolutions where “Eureka moments can stretch into noggin-scratching years.”

These are examples of the style of reporting that former science correspondent for the BBC World Service Toby Murcott argued, in a 2009 Nature article, should become routine in science journalism. Science writers should open up the process of science in their reports, he said, examining how a piece of research came to be undertaken and how it fits into the larger history and current debates about a field.

It is becoming increasingly important for science reporters to become this type of science critic, as their professional roles and practices are shifting in the digital age, a shift examined by myself and a colleague, Matthew Nisbet, in a recently published paper at Journalism.

The contemporary science journalist, we found, is now working at the confluence of three cultural trends. First, their traditional historical role as the privileged disseminators of scientific information has been undercut by the emergence a new science media ecosystem in which scientific journals, institutions and individuals are producing original science content directly for non-specialist audiences. As a result, journalists are no longer the primary source of breaking news about science. Consequently, they need additional ways to attract readers and maintain their professional identity.

Second, the traditional ‘scoop’ culture of journalism is being supplemented by other forms of journalistic authority, what journalism scholar Donald Matheson, in an academic article on online journalism trends in New Media & Society, called “knowing more, knowing better, knowing more comprehensively and knowing in as much depth or extent as readers would wish.” To do this, science journalists need to provide expert interpretation of scientific knowledge, operating similarly to art critics as they evaluate — rather than just describe — scientific findings.

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And, thirdly, the economic changes in the news industry has meant that science reporters are increasingly working as freelancers, the working life of many split between a portfolio of journalism, teaching, convening science-related events and writing books. For example, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Deborah Blum said the industry-wide move to freelancing has driven changing perceptions of what a science reporter is and does. She said in an interview for our paper: “A science journalist wears a lot of hats, the way I do. . . I write books, I do magazine articles, I teach – [this] is much more the 21st century version of a journalist.”

An example of a science reporter doing this kind of science criticism is John Horgan, who writes the Cross-Check blog for Scientific American, and who we categorize in our paper as undertaking the role of a public intellectual, synthesizing a range of complex information about science and its social implications and presenting his view from a distinct, identifiable perspective.

In an interview for our paper, Horgan said that he became dissatisfied with the constraints of traditional reporting while working as a staff reporter for Scientific American in the 1990s and wanted to undertake a more opinion-based, interpretative type of reporting. He said: “I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic . . . I just enjoy that form of journalism myself. It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.”

Horgan, whose author bio on his blog says he takes “a puckish, provocative look at breaking science,” has focused on a recurring them in recent posts: what he described as “the unhealthy influence of profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies on our health-care system”. He explored this idea in a post about the prescription of psychiatric drugs to children and one about the accusation by Michele Bachmann that drug company Merck may have influenced Rick Perry’s 2007 proposal that girls in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Similarly, the Science Fair section of USA Today, which covers science stories it considers novel and intriguing, said it aims to “explain why breakthroughs are important, and what scientists did to reach their conclusions”. Dan Vergano opened up the process of science in a recent piece on the increasing susceptibility of some researchers to the “file-drawer” effect – failing to publish experiments that did not work out. The article was based on a study of studies that was published in the journal Scientometrics, which pointed to the potential harm to scientific progress caused by what the paper’s author, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, called the “loss of negative data.”

As science critics, journalists are also curators of scientific content. They gather selected science-related news, opinion and commentary and present it for their audience in a structured format, often as a narrative. The science section of the British newspaper The Guardian, for example, features Story Trackers, where reporters trace the development of major science stories as they happen. The newspaper said that, “in the hours and days after an important science story breaks, The Guardian science desk provides updates and links to external sources of information and comment”. A recent story tracker curated content about the final space shuttle mission, gathering a variety of online material to allow readers to follow the unfolding story in one place.

Discussing the thinking behind Story Trackers, the paper’s Environment and Health News Editor, James Randerson, told us: “We made a very conscious decision to add value to stories by doing this kind of curation role, and basically admitting that we are not the fount of all knowledge, that we do have the ability to present information in a useful way and to hopefully decide which information is useful and which isn’t”.

Despite these shifting roles and emerging practices, a core component of science criticism remains the explanation of new scientific findings. This type of explanation, however, can be enriched by including historical explanation: where the research fits into existing scientific, social, economic and political domains. This expanded explanation was part of some coverage of the faster-than-light neutrinos, but has a place also in routine science coverage.

The dominant way of thinking about the role of science journalists historically was to view them as translators, or transmitters, of information. Now, however, a powerful metaphor for understanding their work as science critics is to see them as cartographers and guides, mapping scientific knowledge for readers, showing them paths through vast amounts of information, evaluating and pointing out the most important stops along the way.

Declan Fahy , PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C, where he teaches a course in health, science and environmental reporting. His research examines emerging methods, models and styles of science journalism.